Web Published: January 2000
Also Published: Sitarih 'Ala'í & Colleen Daws (eds), The Role of Women in an Advancing Civilization, Association for Bahá'í Studies, Australia, 1989.
In the history of religion in Australia, gender relations has been a sensitive issue. In the accounts of religious traditions dominated by male clerics - whether priests or bishops, evangelists or laymen - women have occupied roles in support of the existing power structure, but rarely ones central to it. Even the most powerful of women in religious orders were ultimately responsible to a male leader. In one assessment of Australian society, the attitudes of both Protestant and Catholic churches toward the sexual division of labour reinforced the idea that a woman's place was in the home, rather than in society, and that her primary duty was to produce children who replicated roles ready-made for them: the girls grew up to become wives and mothers, the boys were trained as workers, businessmen and, if need be, soldiers.
Australian Bahá'í history unfolds in an alternative paradigm. Since the religion has no priesthood, the Bahá'í community does not include concepts of clergy and laity. Similarly, the principle of sexual equality implies that division of social roles on the basis of gender is unacceptable. For this reason, existing interpretations of the position of women in Australian religious history are not entirely descriptive of the Bahá'í experience, which consists of two fundamental and recurring themes. The first of these is the continuing effort to disseminate the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, and to expand the numerical size of the Bahá'í community. The second concerns efforts to establish a viable administrative order, through which the activities of the expanding Bahá'í community can be channelled. Implicit within this purposeful activity is the goal of a unified world community: a global society, at peace.
In pursuit of this, gender has not been proscribed by doctrine: the activists could have been either men, or women. As it happened, less men than women became Bahá'ís in Australia in the 1920s, and, until the 1950s, women played the greater role in the promotion of Bahá'í beliefs. In Eastern societies, by way of contrast, the same Bahá'í beliefs were transmitted predominantly by men.
Within two decades of the establishment of the Bahá'í Faith in Australia, there appeared in the Adelaide community such remarkable women as - and in addition to Hilda Brooks - Silver Jackman, Ethel Dawe, Leila Clark, Bertha Dobbins, and Rose Hawthorne. Also, there were Effie Baker, Margaret Dixson and Eleanor Wheeler in Melbourne; and Jane Routh, Charlotte Moffitt, Margaret Rowling and Mariette Bolton in Sydney. Other women whose lives deserve closer investigation include Ethel Blundell, and Emily Axford from Auckland, Vada Fraser-Paterson, who lived for a considerable period in Broken Hill, and Emily Eastgate, an English woman who worked as a nanny on a remote Queensland sheep-station.
Many of the first Australian Bahá'ís were single, being either unmarried, or widowed. Few among them had had extensive formal education, and the Melbourne and Perth Bahá'ís, predominantly women, tended to be of lower socio-economic status than their Adelaide and Sydney counterparts. Many had been associated with New Thought, Theosophy, and other such movements, before becoming Bahá'ís. The local assemblies they helped Hyde and Clara Dunn establish in the state capitals, between 1922 and 1925, did not endure beyond 1929. Not only was it hard to hold meetings during the depression years, but members were not clear, at that time, on the details of Bahá'í administration.
The need for instruction in administrative affairs prompted Shoghi Effendi to direct Mrs Keith Ransom-Kehler to Australia in 1931-32. His hope was that her influence - for she possessed a direct and compelling personality - would result in a clearer understanding of Bahá'í procedure, and in the consolidation of existing Local Assemblies, the necessary foundation on which a National Assembly could be established.
Ransom-Kehler's presence in Adelaide in September 1931 not only brought "heavenly breezes of love and refreshing spiritual fragrances" to the Bahá'ís, but her enlightened and convincing style, during one of her many lectures there, also drew two sisters, Hilda Brooks and Rose Hawthorne, into the Bahá'í community. Whereas two other sisters, Dorothy and Gladys Kuhlman became Bahá'ís but were seldom heard from again, Hilda and Rose embraced the Bahá'í Cause whole-heartedly. Within a year Hilda became secretary of the Adelaide Local Assembly, and within three years, she became the first secretary of the newly-formed National Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand. Until her death in 1969 she contributed greatly to the expansion and consolidation of the Australian Bahá'í community - as public speaker, writer, and administrator, roles for which she felt most ill-equipped.
Shoghi Effendi's comment in 1948, that Bahá'ís everywhere were "people with no great distinguishments of either wealth or fame", who, when they undertook activities to promote the Faith, achieved remarkable results, aptly describes the career of Hilda Brooks, and her Australian co-religionists. As women, they had not been encouraged to complete extensive formal eduction. In matters of religion, there had not been opportunity for them to develop skills as administrators, leaders, and preachers, in a period when the masculine authority within Christian traditions was rarely challenged. Church leadership remained in the hands of men, while women "spent enormous amounts of time in arranging fetes, bazaars and sales of work, raising money to reduce church debts, to support overseas missions, or towards a new building or an expensive article of church furniture". The importance of women, in other words, consisted of the material support they lent to the existing order. In this context, Hilda Brooks' career as an administrator and public lecturer was a remarkable and courageous break with tradition.
Later described as a "very elegant lady, a wonderful speaker, very dignified, (with an) elegant personality", possessed of an "infallible memory and great powers of concentration" Hilda Brooks achieved her initial results only after hard work. There was no concept of equal rights for women in the conservative Methodist community in which she was raised, and her three brothers had laughed in earlier years at the idea of women having the same mental capacities as men. Nevertheless, five members of the Brooks family, farmers at Booleroo, some two hundred kilometres north of Adelaide, soon joined Hilda and Rose as members of the Bahá'í community.
Family support, material and spiritual, contributed to Hilda's success. Not trained in public speaking, she practiced her craft on members of her family before giving her first public address, in March 1934. There were 32 present, reported Robert Brown, and "Miss Brooks delivered the message exceedingly well (par excellence)". For nearly a decade she remained Adelaide community's principal public speaker, and dreamed of seeing the Adelaide meeting room filled to overflowing. Success was measured in terms of seats occupied and in the "ever-widening circle of genuinely interested ones" that made her hopeful of future results. She also spoke on other platforms, including those of the Radiant Health Society, and the Theosophical Society. Not all Adelaide Bahá'ís were given the opportunity to speak in public: from early in 1931, when the Adelaide Bahá'ís formed a study circle for "special practice in public speaking", until 1934, the Adelaide Bahá'ís spoke only among themselves. "We have not done any speaking outside this year", Hilda wrote to Bertram Dewing in Auckland, "we are training for it, and when we produce eloquent speakers we will come out in the open". The Local Assembly decided which speakers were capable of addressing public meetings, and, Hilda assured Martha Root in 1939, any restrictions on who spoke were "for the best interests of the Faith". By 1940, Hilda Brooks and Bertha Dobbins alternated as speaker at Adelaide's monthly public meetings, and by 1944, the task was shared with Leila Clark, Ethel Dawe, Dorothy Dugdale, Will Allen and Harold Fitzner.
Initially, the talks presented by Bahá'ís were influenced by their association with "new age" topics and organizations, such as New Thought, which shared the Bahá'í view that a wondrous age was about to commence. Thus Hilda spoke on such topics as "The Dawn of a New Day", "Freedom", "A New Age", "A New Design for Living", "A New Existence", and "A New World". Even such topics as "Religious Unity", and "The Rise and Establishment of the World Religions", addressed themes of mutual interest. But similarities between the world-view of the metaphysical movements and the Bahá'í Faith were accompanied by significant differences.
New Thought placed little emphasis, for instance, on establishing the administrative machinery required for the wide-spread propagation of its beliefs. The "metaphysical movement" was, rather, a stream of loosely-affiliated organizations, each reflecting the character and interests of their individual founders. The attraction of New Thought, in which many of the first Bahá'ís shared, lay partly in the freedom brought to the human spirit by its departure from the ecclesiastical framework of traditional Christianity, with its emphasis on priestly or Papal authority. Thus, because so many of the first Bahá'ís had passed through the metaphysical movements, some among them resisted the establishment of an administrative basis to the Bahá'í community. In this setting Hilda Brooks' personality and friendly yet authoritarian -perhaps even maternal - style, one which preferred order to entropy, and methodicalness to undisciplined emotion, was intuitively attracted to the task of guiding the scattered Australian and New Zealand Bahá'ís toward a single, co-ordinated, continent-wide community.
When Hilda was first elected to the Adelaide Spiritual Assembly in April, 1932, and voted secretary, a decade of administrative responsibility began. Clara Dunn had recently returned from pilgrimage in Palestine with instructions from Shoghi Effendi to "return to Australia, (and) inspire and urge the friends in that land, to establish and consolidate a(n) N.S.A. even from the three Assemblies at present constituted viz - Auckland, Sydney and Adelaide". "In compliance therewith", Hilda wrote to the British National Assembly, "the Adelaide Assembly lovingly and humbly submits itself, hoping to bring the joy of its accomplishment to his heart, during the next Bahá'í year...". Preparations commenced. The Adelaide Assembly established a committee to study the Will and Testament of Abdu'l-Bahá, and study also Shoghi Effendi's letters to the North American Bahá'ís, published as Bahá'í Administration. In addition, it wrote to Shoghi Effendi for his guidance in the matter, and to the National Assemblies of North America and Great Britain England to enquire about legal procedures. Sydney and Auckland Assemblies were asked to establish committees to study the issue, and to treat the matter as urgent, in the hope that the National Assembly might be formed in 1933.
But whereas Sydney and Auckland Assemblies immediately indicated their readiness to form the National Assembly, Adelaide, more cautiously, waited for Shoghi Effendi's reply before proceeding. When the response came in December that it was for the Assemblies to "take counsel together and deliberate whether it is feasible to ensure the formation and successful functioning of the N.S.A...", Adelaide demurred. A second letter, in May 1933 which advised the Assemblies to "proceed slowly and carefully", and described the formation of a National Assembly as "not an easy matter", but one "fraught with incalculable difficulties", entrenched their conservatism.
Adelaide Assembly argued immediately to the other Assemblies that shortness of time, lack of finance, the great distances involved, and the general unpreparedness of the three Assemblies prevented the formation of the National Assembly in 1934. It argued, and subsequent experience suggests it argued correctly, that the National Assembly would not have been able to meet regularly, and would have to make important decisions by correspondence - a situation it did not believe accorded with the express wish of Shoghi Effendi. If Hilda did not foresee that she was to be the National secretary, she had at least perceived the administrative headaches that lay ahead, and continued to refer to them in her last report as National Assembly secretary, in 1944.
Sydney Assembly was disappointed. Through either rivalry or chivalry it pledged £100 toward the expenses of the National Assembly over the next 12 months, should it be formed. The Auckland Assembly seemed more concerned that enrolment cards, if introduced, would violate "the principle of the right of the individual to self expression". As occurred in communities in other Western societies, the Antipodean Bahá'ís grappled with the implications of organization. Affiliation required more commitment than mere association, and some members remained suspicious of "organized religion". But the issue had to be resolved: who was elegible to vote in Bahá'í elections? Who could be elected delegates? These questions were raised repeatedly in the decade following the formation of the National Assembly. In the first instance, Bahá'ís resident in the Local Assembly areas - the cities of Sydney, Adelaide and Auckland - voted for three delegates each; "isolated" Bahá'ís resident in all other areas, whether in cities and country towns, had no vote.
By February 1934 Adelaide agreed to establishing the National Assembly. There were 19 Bahá'ís in the Adelaide community, and approximately 80 throughout Australia and New Zealand.
"I hope that our proposition to hold the Convention will not be a great shock to you", Hilda reported to Auckland, "the Sydney friends have long urged us to take this step and now the Guardian's letter has galvanized us into action."
The first National Convention was held in Sydney, at the Bahá'í room in Hunter Street, beginning May 15. Each of the three Assemblies sent three delegates. Hilda Brooks, Silver Jackman, and Robert Brown travelled to Sydney as Adelaide's elected delegates. They returned to Adelaide, as did Perce Almond, who was not a delegate, as members of the first National Assembly. "Wonderful harmony prevailed throughout the entire deliberations", reported Hilda of the event to the Guardian. She returned to Adelaide, and to her responsibilities as secretary, in shock: she had no secretarial training, and the other Adelaide members of the National Assembly were similarly untrained - Bob Brown worked in a warehouse, and Silver Jackman managed a guest house.
Meetings of the National Assembly remained harmonious during its first decade: "Although we had many prolonged discussions in order to find the solutions to our problems", Hilda reported to the Guardian of their meeting in Sydney in May 1935, "we were always in perfect accord and all our decisions were unanimous." There were, nevertheless, large obstacles to be surmounted. The distances and costs of travel proved a mighty hindrance to communication, and annual convention was cancelled for a variety of reasons in 1935-36, 1938-43 and 1945. Clerical work was "arduous", the National Secretary commented in her report for 1937, and in several following it, "owing to the fact that, except for once a year, when the NSA meets, all consultations must be conducted by correspondence".
For a decade, Hilda communicated with Shoghi Effendi on behalf of the National Assembly, and the Australian and New Zealand Bahá'í communities. She described her love for the Institution of the Guardian as "something extra special, like a wellspring, a source of continual supply, deep and satisfying". A sense of the camaraderie between the first members of the first National Assembly is conveyed in Hilda's description to Shoghi Effendi, of a meeting held in Melbourne in 1938, despite a mix-up which made their intended meeting room unavailable:
We returned to the Victoria Palace where we were lodging and after consultation decided to hold our meeting in my bedroom. It was a small room with only one chair in it. Miss Blundell sat on the chair. Mr Brown sat on the arm of the chair, Mr Whitaker had a rug and cushion on the floor, Dr Bolton sat on the waste paper basket and Mrs Jackman and I sat on the bed. We soon forgot our surroundings in the joy of our work..."
The years of the Second World War were particularly difficult. In 1940 censors withheld cables from Shoghi Effendi to the National Assembly, suspecting that Bahá'í words unfamiliar to them might be coded messages concerning troop movements. Travel was also restricted. In 1941 Hilda had to acquire special permits from the Minister for Internal Affairs allowing the New Zealand members of the National Assembly, Emily Axford, and Ethel and Hugh Blundell, to travel to Sydney for a meeting. By 1943 there was an absolute prohibition on interstate travel permits, and national convention was of necessity cancelled.
The difficult war years brought to a head another issue. A "Summer School", held annually from January 1938 on the private property at Yerrinbool, of Sydney Bahá'ís Stanley and Mariette Bolton, rapidly became a focus for tensions between some Sydney and Adelaide Bahá'ís. The tensions, unwarranted, yet quite real at the time, resulted in the taking of sides: those who favoured the Sydney faction attended summer schools at Yerrinbool; those who did not, pressed for one to be established in Adelaide. Hilda Brooks was among the advocates of an Adelaide school. Although Adelaide Assembly attracted the ire of the National Assembly by failing to seek permission before holding its first school, in 1941, the National Assembly subsequently welcomed Adelaide's intiative, and hoped to develop the event as an alternative to the Yerrinbool Summer School.
Between 1941-1944 "Winter Schools" were held annually at Astoria, and early in 1943 - the year in which denial of war-time travel permits prevented Bahá'ís from attending the Yerrinbool Summer School - the Adelaide Bahá'ís purchased a property at Belair:
"We have decided to buy a piece of land", Hilda reported to Gladys Moody of the Sydney Assembly, "and build a school on it, in the foothills commemorating one of our best panoramic views. We are so thrilled about it. The school will later become a great Bahá'í college. It will be close to Adelaide, close enough to be used all the year around".
This was not a vision shared by the Guardian. His instruction that the property be sold brought an impassioned response from Hilda:
"Beloved Guardian", she cabled at length on 4 October 1943, "have you received my letter June 8 correctly explaining purpose Belair property, great teaching enterprise, Bahá'í centre from which extend to country districts Adelaide Assembly's unanimous decision eager support nearly all believers, National Assembly fully approved, encouraged and assisted stop summer school secondary consideration, main purpose centre, weekly meetings, spreading out stop cost travelling Adelaide Yerrinbool would soon pay for property, very few believers able to attend Yerrinbool expense distance so great travel permits unobtainable stop Adelaide Assembly's enthusiasm extinguished effort paralysed sacrifice wasted unless you are pleased humbly beg reassuring message if project has your approval as assembly deeply disappointed letter to Mrs Dobbins. heartfelt love hilda brooks".
The Adelaide Bahá'ís were to learn that Shoghi Effendi's plans were resolute. He repeated in letters in 1944-45 his desire that the Australian community support just one Summer School:
Whatever the history of the Yerrinbool School may be, the fact remains it is now in existence, is owned by believers ready to have it used as such, and is known as the Bahá'í Summer School all over the world. The Guardian is not the least concerned with personalities in this matter, but with principles. He feels at the present time that one Bahá'í Summer School is enough for the believers of Australia to maintain. In the future, as assemblies and groups multiply, the question will naturally have to be reconsidered.
This correspondence occurred in the context of much protest from the Adelaide Bahá'ís, who felt that the saving in transport costs to and from Summer Schools at Yerrinbool would more than pay for a property in Adelaide. Shoghi Effendi's considerations, however, were not merely financial. He was concerned that the Bahá'ís develop a truly corporate, not parochial or regional, identity.
1943 also brought other turbulent events. Although the National Assembly's office bearers had been located in Adelaide since 1934 - Hilda Brooks as secretary, Silver Jackman as treasurer, and Robert Brown as chairman - the Guardian requested in July 1943 that a national centre be purchased in Sydney, which he described as the continent's "mother city". After a complicated search, a two-story house was purchased in 1944, at 2 Lang Road, Paddington. When some Bahá'ís expressed the view that the National secretary had to be in residence, and despite Shoghi Effendi's reassurance that the transfer of administrative offices from Adelaide to Sydney could be gradual, the view prevailed that, because the Headquarters was the seat of the secretariat, the National Secretary should be in residence. At the 1944 National Convention Dulcie Dive was elected secretary, and transferred her residence from Auckland to Sydney. Hilda Brooks remained on the National Assembly but her service as secretary was at an end. Her involvement in national Bahá'í issues, however, was not.
Unlike the metaphysical groups, which attracted followers through their theological openness and seemingly non-doctrinaire approach to religion, Bahá'í belief includes exclusive truth-claims. When addressing such topics as "Human evolution and Divine Revelation", "Bahá'u'lláh and His Message", or "Proving the truth of the claims of the Manifestation of God", Hilda focussed on the prophet-hood of Bahá'u'lláh, and the significance of His revelation. Consistently, her talks conveyed essential Bahá'í beliefs, concerning the nature of man, the present condition of human society, and its propects for the future. She proclaimed her message boldly, and sought to relate the condition of Australian society as she then saw it, to the vision of the future, in which Australian society blended into a global community, through such talks as "World Unity", "World Religion as the Foundation of "World Peace, Universal Brotherhood and World Unity", and "Mankind's Appointment with Destiny".
By the late 1930s, Hilda delivered public talks inter-state. Members of the National Assembly met in Melbourne in April 1938, so that they could give public talks there, and raise the profile of the Melbourne Bahá'ís. The following year, in February 1939, Hilda, together with Rose and Will Hawthorne, accompanied the American Bahá'í lecturer Martha Root during her engagements in Melbourne and Hobart. Although the Australian Bahá'ís knew that Miss Root was extremely ill - she hardly ate, her body was wracked with pain, and several of her lectures had to be cancelled - they were not to know she would die of cancer soon after, in Hawaii. Hilda took courage from Martha Root's work in Australia, and wrote to her in March 1939:
"I appreciated very much your efforts to push me forward but I was determined to keep the spotlight on you where it belonged....Dearest Martha I thank you for all your sweet and lovely ways, I shall sell my golf clubs, my violin and my diamond ring and go to the United States to see you."
There were more visits to Melbourne, in September 1940, then in April-June 1941; and for two weeks in 1942, when Emily Axford and Ethel Blundell also spoke, on "The Bahá'í Faith" and "The Great Event". Hilda spoke on "Mankind's appointment with destiny". In August 1942, at Adelaide's second "Winter School", she gave an early talk on Islam. Late in 1943 she was joined by her sister Rose, Charlotte Moffett and Gladys Moody, in a ten-day visit to Broken Hill, where "small, but appreciative" audiences attended two public lectures in the Country Women's Association rooms.
In 1941 these women (Hilda, Rose, Charlotte Moffett and Jane Routh) also visited Brisbane, where the Bahá'í message had been promoted in the 1920s by the Dunns, but not since. 60 people attended Hilda's first talk there, titled "Bahá'u'lláh and a New World Order", which received news-paper and radio coverage, and which, in addition, led to an interview for the magazine Queensland Country Life. The extent of interest in literature required the ladies to send for three extra parcels of books.
As well as speaking before the public, efforts were made to contact Australia's political and religious leaders. In 1940 Bahá'í books were presented to Prime Minister Robert Menzies, and to the State Premiers. In 1942 Hilda sent a copy of Stanwood Cobb's Security for a Failing World to Professor Walter Murdoch, following press reportage of his statement "To what doctor is the sick world to turn?".
There were few proficient writers among the first Australian and New Zealand Bahá'ís. Some, including Hilda Brooks, gained competence through necessity. Their essays were included in Herald of the South, or Bahá'í Quarterly, or were circulated in a limited edition of cyclo-styled sheets. Emily Axford was appointed first editor of the Quarterly in 1936, with Hilda, Jane Routh, and Ethel Blundell comprising an editorial committee. Hilda became editor of the Quarterly in 1944. She also served on the editorial committee for Herald of the South, with Dorothy Dugdale and Leila Clark, and in 1938 she replaced Bertram Dewing on the editorial staff of the Bahá'í World.
Concerning all these publications Hilda Brooks and the Adelaide Assembly exercised tight editorial control. If this insistence that all matters concerning manuscripts and correspondence gain the Assembly's approval before publication led to the irritation at different times, of editors Bertha Dobbins and Bertram Dewing, it was justified by a small yet significant number of editorial transgresssions which the Assembly hoped not to repeat: at one time Herald of the South unknowingly published an article by a covenant-breaker, and at another, it published an article in which Bahá'í doctrines concerning Spiritualism were incorrectly conveyed.
Although subscriptions and support were sought for Herald of the South from Bahá'í communities world-wide, good articles were in short supply, and the viability of the magazine was debated. "Our magazine Herald of the South is published quarterly and is now 5\- pa", Hilda wrote to the newsletter for India and Burma, adding, "We should be pleased to receive articles and hope the youth of the Bahá'í world will express themselves through the medium of the youth section of this magazine". Bertram Dewing believed he could, if given a "free hand", make the journal financial. But to do so, Hilda argued, would "mollify the law of consultation", besides which, financial success was not the first consideration. Herald of the South struggled through several closures and re-commencements, and was most recently ressurrected in 1984.
There was, in addition, the quest for literary quality. The National Assembly approved the publication of Hilda's essay "The Administrative Order", and Emily Axford's, "The non-political character of the Bahá'í Faith" - which received the accolades of Shoghi Effendi and was several times reprinted in volumes of The Bahá'í World - but refused to publish essays by Margaret Rowling, of Sydney, (delivered at the Yerrinbool Summer School), despite the repeated petitions of her enthusiastic supporters, including Sydney Assembly.
Hilda Brooks wrote to explain Bahá'í teachings, to argue their merit, and to refute attacks upon them. For 6 weeks in 1943 the editor of the Mittagong Star entertained an exchange of letters between her and an erudite Catholic priest and scholar, Dr Leonard, who had chosen to describe the Bahá'í Faith as an "outcrop of Islamic Faith in a nineteenth century Mahdi". According to the Bahá'í Quarterly, the scholar was bested, and his misconceptions clarified with a grace that he himself acknowledged. In 1945 she produced a similar refutation to remarks on the Bahá'í Faith by Rev. Gurney, in Adelaide's Church Guardian, (and, with Silver Jackman, consulted a solicitor about the "scurrilous attack on the Faith" by Max Harris in his book The Vegatative Eye). There were also radio scripts: in 1943, Hilda, Jane Routh, and Emily Axford, each wrote two talks for broadcast on the Macquarie network.
The great paradox in the early Australian Bahá'í community was that, whereas its members were brought together by the ideals of a world-embracing, and peace-aspiring Faith, its unity was fragile, and was at times shattered by the feuds of contending and contrasting personalities. The first Bahá'ís were strong in character, and zealous in their Faith. Each one pursued what they regarded as its best interests, with a righteousness that smacked of certitude: whose who thought differently to them were in the wrong.
In this context of strongly held, and loudly voiced convictions, Hilda Brooks conducted her secretarial duties. She had her detractors, and tensions appeared within the Adelaide community, and between some members of the Adelaide and Sydney communities. They appeared also in the deliberations of delegates to the National Convention, and on occasion became the subject of correspondence between the National Assembly and Shoghi Effendi.
As first National Secretary, Hilda Brooks maintained tight control over both teaching and administrative matters, and justified doing so by referring to the the Guardian's instruction to "centralize authority in the National Spiritual Assembly" during the "age of tender growth" of the Bahá'í community. Accordingly, the National Assembly discouraged the dispersal of Bahá'ís to new areas, and asserted that much "consolidation" was yet required in the existing Bahá'í communities. When Shoghi Effendi was encouraging the "multiplication" of Bahá'í centres, the National Secretary reminded the community that the purpose of fireside groups was to "feed the Bahá'í centre in the city. The success of the fireside group is determined by the number of new ones it brings to the Centre".
But this desire to keep events in the Bahá'í community neatly ordered became more difficult as the number of individual members, and the range of their activities, increased. Furthermore, the centralization of authority in the National Assembly was too narrow an interpretation of Shoghi Effendi's advice, since he also constantly spoke of expanding the geographical base of the Bahá'í community. In 1943 he prompted the National Assembly to action by cabling:
CONCENTRATE NEXT MEETING MEASURES ENSURE MULTIPLICATION BAHAI CENTRES...
It was several years before this instruction took full effect, and to be given full attention by the National Assembly, and its Teaching Committees. There were three avenues to consider: the first required organized teaching campaigns in selected outlying areas; the second involved the movement of "settlers" from the capital cities to smaller country towns; and the third required the dissolution of the existing Local Assemblies, which had included all Bahá'ís resident in the respective capital cities, in favour of smaller local communities, established on the basis of local municipality boundaries.
Dramatic events at National Convention, held in Sydney in May 1946, provided the catalyst for change, and growth. On Friday 17th, 7 of the 9 elected delegates were present to vote for the new National Assembly. Auckland delegates Hugh Blundell and Roi Deem, who were unable to attend, forwarded postal votes. Present from Adelaide were Hilda Brooks, Silver Jackman, and Harold Fitzner; and from Sydney, Dulcie Dive, Arthur Tunks and Jane Routh. Hazel Reynolds was present as delegate of the newly established Assembly of Caringbah.
The vote proved something of a sensation: Harold Fitzner, chairman of the out-going National Assembly, and Convention chairman, was not re-elected. His response came on Saturday morning. The voting had been affected, Fitzner claimed, by "advance nomination...pre-selection and planned voting". Hilda Brooks and Silver Jackman were implicated. Heated exchanges followed, and 4 of the 6 delegates present passed a resolution which read:
That the election of the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand for the year 1946-47 be declared invalid as voting was irregular and prejudiced.
Two cables reached the Guardian. One, from the delegates, read:
Majority delegates present convention declare election National Assembly held Wednesday invalid guidance awaited.
Another, from the out-going National Assembly, read:
Cable sent by Convention was sent on unsupported evidence of one person that there had been party voting before the National election.
To these cables Shoghi Effendi replied:
Matter regarding election National Assembly should be settled by outgoing Assembly.
Like siblings struggling to live and play together, the delegates had not meant to hurt each other. Harold Fitzner made his statement "satisfied that it must be done in the best interests of the Faith". Arthur Tunks made it known that his comments were "wholeheartedly for the Cause" and that no personal attack had been intended. Hilda Brooks subsequently apologised to Harold Fitzner for comments she had made prior to Convention. Most importantly, the Convention felt that more representative voting required a greater number of delegates, and passed a resolution to this effect. Although 19 delegates attended the 1947 Convention, they continued to represent just four Local Assemblies (Harold Fitzner, incidentally, was re-elected to the National Assembly).
If the events surrounding the 1946 Convention can be characterized as the "old guard" Bahá'ís, seeking to maintain themselves against a "new guard" of younger, more energetic and ambitious members; a second struggle emerged, in which the established members of the Adelaide Assembly - including Hilda Thomas (nee Brooks) sought to preserve its status, while younger Bahá'ís, living further from the city centre, supported moves for decentralization of Bahá'í adminstration, which would enable their greater participation in it.
In New South Wales, Yerrinbool community had been established in 1940, and Caringbah in 1942. Albert Park was established in South Australia in 1946. Local Assemblies were established in these areas in 1947, 1945 and 1948 (as Woodville Assembly) respectively. Other Assemblies were later established in Melbourne in 1948; in Brisbane, Hobart and Perth 1949; and Devonport (NZ) in 1950. Collis and Madge Featherstone, who declared in Albert Park in 1944, were representative of the younger Bahá'ís living in outer suburbs, intent on establishing Bahá'í communities separate from the older Assembly based in the city center. Their case was persuasive, and ultimately successful especially after Shoghi Effendi instructed in July 1947 that:
large suburbs, if outside the city limits and possessing their own administration should - if 9 Bahá'ís reside in them, form separate assemblies,
The matter was not settled easily. Although the National Assembly reversed its previous policy and asked the Adelaide Assembly - which encompassed the whole city - to dissolve itself in favour of the establishment of smaller communities, based on municipal boundaries, most members of Adelaide Assembly and Adelaide community - who now numbered about 50 - forgot their past animosities and united in refusing to do so, and appealed to the Guardian against the National Assembly's new policy, leaving Bertha and Jo Dobbins, resident in Payneham, as the only couple in favour of the change.
Shoghi Effendi, swift to reply, praised the Adelaide Assembly for acting in what they regarded as being the best interests of the Faith - for their appeals to him were perfectly valid - but nevertheless required them to obey the National Assembly:
He sympathizes with you in your feeling of distress about the immediate consequences which will follow upon carrying out the instructions of your N.S.A. regarding the formation of groups in the various municipalities about Adelaide proper. However, he feels that your feelings are largely caused by a certain degree of confusion in your minds about the administration:
In the United States this principle has already been put into effect some years ago, namely that a spiritual assembly should be constituted by voting believers resident within the civic limits of any given place. At first this change-over caused difficulties and confusion in many centres, particularly large and old ones, like your own there in Adelaide, but it greatly strengthened the Cause, put the administration on a firm and logical foundation from a legal point of view as well as an administrative one, increased not only the number of assemblies but also the number of groups, and gave more believers a chance to function actively.
The time has now come when the same thing can and must be done in Australia. Your Assembly and community should look upon this as a challenge and an opportunity to assist the Faith to expand, not only locally but nationally.
The Guardian does not consider that local difficulties, such as tram lines, etc, can be allowed to stand in the way of a national policy, which is what this change is - a new national policy given your N.S.A. by the Guardian himself.
Because of the national character of the change involved there was no necessity for your N.S.A. to consult any local assembly. It is the right and duty of the N.S.A. to manage the national affairs of the community at large.
Likewise, he does not feel that any of your Community members should feel they are having their vote taken from them. If they moved away and became isolated believers, under normal circumstances, they would lose their vote. In future, when your country passes through this transitional period, and you have believers spread more evenly over your states, the state will be the unity, not the assembly (which is now the case in America), and then every Bahá'í isolated or otherwise, will have a vote.
It will be seen therefore, that the sooner Adelaide puts into operation the plan outlined for them by their N.S.A., the sooner will this period of transition be passed. Also, it will hasten the day when all local assemblies can be incorporated and received recognized status, along with their N.S.A., from the government.
Judging from the many letters he has received from Australia dealing with administrative details, he feels the friends there are attaching too much importance to it. Administration is to facilitate teaching work primarily. It is not something to be over-elaborated and become a source of dissension amongst the believers.
He hopes, now that he has frankly pointed out to you what must be done, you will do it not only with minds at rest as to the wisdom of the N.S.A.'s plan, but also with hearts thrilled by the challenge of this opportunity - for it is an opportunity - to build up new assemblies, new groups, and give more of your Adelaide members a chance to become active in both the teaching work and on the future assemblies.
With this comprehensive reply, received in January 1950, and after struggling with the National Assembly for almost a year, the members of the Adelaide Assembly relinquished their campaign, and established the new Bahá'í communities of Burnside, which included Hilda and Ewart Thomas; Unley; and St Peters. Payneham community, which included the Dobbins and Fitzner families, had commenced slightly earlier, in November 1949.
Although conflicting viewpoints had been resolved in favour of the National Assembly, the affair was never regarded as a victory over Adelaide Assembly. A lesson in the evolution of the Australian community had been learned, and it moved on to address new challenges, especially the establishment of Bahá'í communities in the Pacific Islands in the decade 1953-63.
There were changes for Hilda in the later years. In November 1946 she married Ewart Thomas, a kindly man but in poor health, who worked on the Adelaide Trams. In 1947 she was elected onto the National Assembly for the last time. Her attention shifted to local teaching projects, in Unley, Quorn and Strathalbyn, many of which were reported in the Northern Argus, and Southern Argus. In 1957 a Local Assembly was established in the Thomas's own community, Burnside.
By 1950, Hilda Thomas had left the national arena of Bahá'í affairs to a younger generation. She had adopted the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh's, she once wrote, as a "call for cooperative, collective action by all mankind, the re-organization of the world on a co-operative basis to produce a world economy, a world civilization, a world community, world unity". As an administrator, she had taken the small Bahá'í community as an appropriate starting point, in which to:"put into practice the principles of Bahá'í administration and thus by our community life and activities, mirror forth the excellence of Bahá'í administration". With her role as an administrator at an end, Shoghi Effendi wrote, through his secretary of his appreciation for her efforts, and his hope that she could subsequently turn her energy toward other activities:
He deeply appreciates the work done by Miss Brooks in the past as secretary of the National Assembly, and hopes that now that she is relieved of this arduous post, she will devote much of her time to teaching and writing for the Faith.
This she did. On one particular trip, to Melbourne in April 1946, Hilda's confidence in conversing with personalities of diverse social backgrounds was demonstrated. With the assistance of Una Collins of Melbourne, and Gretta Lamprill from Hobart, Hilda presented the Bahá'í message to Mr. O'Neill, the Headmaster of Wesley College; Mr. Margotts, the manager of Mack's Furniture Emporium; Rev. Plum of the Australian Church; Mr Kimpton, of Flour Mills; Dr. Boreham, a Protestant minister; the Theosophical Society; a representative of the W.C.T.U.; the Rev. McKenzie, a Presbyterian minister; the Chief Commissioner of Police; Harold Rodgers, a musician; Mr. Hollins, a former Member of Parliament; and Dr. Sanger, a Jewish Rabbi. Her attempts to see the Lieutenant-Governor remained unsuccessful. She reported of her interview with Mr. Margotts:
In the afternoon I had a long interview with Mr Margotts, Manager of Mack's Furniture Emporium, a businessman of Melbourne. Follower of the Latter Day Saints Sect he thought and said I was doing the devil's work and that Bahá'í was anti-Christ. I quoted the Bible extensively to him which quite baffled him. He said that if I gave myself to the Lord, I would be a tower of strength to him. He said I was preaching a false doctrine and a false Christ. Although he had been hostile, we parted on excellent terms with jokes and laughter and mutual good wishes. Interview, one hour.
Religious communities must, necessarily, address the issue of religious authority, and in the Bahá'í community, as elsewhere, a system of government had to be initiated and administered. This occured in the ministry of Shoghi Effendi, 1921-1957, on the basis of texts written by Bahá'u'lláh and Abdu'l-Bahá. Because the Bahá'í Faith is such a new religion, the first Australian Bahá'ís were converts, and were not born into their religion. Thus they were often zealous in their conviction, and agreement with the decisions of the community's administrators, by individuals of diverse temperaments, was not automatic. The subsequent struggle between individuality and group solidarity was on-going.
As first secretary of the National administrative body of the Australian and New Zealand Bahá'ís, Hilda Brooks was an arbitrator and activist; an advocate, author, and administrator - roles usually associated with men rather than with women: She was instrumental in establishing a solid basis for Bahá'í administration in Australia, and campaigned for her beliefs and principles without regard for the small size of the Bahá'í community, or for its relative obscurity within the wider, increasingly secular, Australian society; She maintained contact with the scattered and isolated Bahá'ís throughout the period of the second world war, and prevented their spirits from being broken, barely able to re-surface afterwards, as occurred to several other religious bodies of similar size; She demonstrated, furthermore, through her dedication, perseverence and resilience, that women can, indeed, justify their involvement as equals with men, in positions of religious leadership.
I wish to thank James Heggie, Jim Chittleborough and the Dibdin family for the efforts they made to make available to me copies of Hilda Brooks' talks. I wish to thank also the various people interviewed, whose names are acknowledged where appropriate in the text. Primary materials for this paper located in the United States Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette Illinois, are so indicated; those from the Australian Bahá'í Archives are identified by box and bundle numbers.
See, eg, Patrick O'Farrell, The Catholic Church in Australia, Nelson, 1968.
Sabine Willis, "Homes are Divine Workshops", in Elizabeth Windwhuttle, ed., Women, Class and History: Feminist Perspectives on Australia 1788-1978, Fontana, 1980. See also, Jan Mercer, "Religion, Socialization and the Role of Women", in Mercer, (ed.), The Other Half: Women in Australian Society, Penguin, 1983.
On the introduction of the Bahá'í Faith to Australia see "The Bahá'í Faith in Australia: Some notes on John and Clara Hyde Dunn 1920-1934", Proceedings of the Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1982; also, "First and Finest", Herald of the South, July 1985. The present paper is the third in a series on Australian Bahá'í women, following "Effie Baker: An Australian Women", Proceedings, 1986, and "Australian Women and Religious Change: Margaret Dixson and the first Melbourne Bahá'ís", Proceedings, 1988. For discussion of the Yerrinbool School see, Yerrinbool Bahá'í School: an Account of the First Fifty Years, CPN Publications, Canberra, 1988.
"News and Notes", Herald of the South, 3:9, 14 October, 10.
Ransom-Kehler also spoke to 100 girl guides and rangers at Nailsworth Central School, and to small and large audiences at the New Thought Society, the Radiant Health Club, the Theosophical Society, and the Order of Light, a spiritual church. Also, she addressed the Housewives Association, St John's Church, and gave talks on radio stations 5CL and 5DN, and gave a series of 9 lectures on the Bahá'í Faith, ibid.
Lucy Giordano, who later became a Bahá'í, told Hilda Brooks that an American lecturer was to speak at the New Thought Society, and that she should attend. Hilda did so, and subsequently gave her brother David to read some passages of Abdu'l-Bahá. At another time Rose listened to Clara Dunn address a New Thought meeting, to which she was never invited to return, since Hilda, David, Rose, and her husband Will, all became Bahá'ís. Rose Hawthorne, interview, 23/2/81.
Shoghi Effendi in a letter, 11 May 1948, to the National Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand, Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, 1923-57, Australia, 1970, 70.
David Hilliard and Arnold D. Hunt, "Strands in the Social Fabric: Religion", in Eric Richards (ed.), The Flinders History of South Australia, Wakefield Press, 1987, 224.
Avilda Reid, interview, 29 May 1983.
Dorothy Dugdale, "In Memoriam: Hilda Thomas", Bahá'í Bulletin, 179, July 1969, 12.
Rose Hawthorne, interview. Hilda wrote to Clara Dunn on 30 March 1939 "there are now seven members of our family certified Bahá'ís, there is nothing like beginning at home is there?". 0464/0168.
Robert Brown to Sydney Assembly, 25 March 1934. 0252/0062.
National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Shoghi Effendi, 2 January 1937. SE3. On 2 December 1932 Hilda wrote to the Guardian "Our room is a great improvement on the old one, it has never been filled to overflowing, but we hope that the day is not far distant when it will be." (0252/0062) By 1940, Hilda was reporting "large audiences" at the monthly meetings: Bahá'í Quarterly, 16, July 1940, 5.
Herald of the South, 3:6, 12 Jan. 1931, 1.
Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Bertram Dewing, 7 August 1933. 0252/0062.
Hilda Brooks to Martha Root, 30 March 1939. Martha Root Papers, M114 Box 4/44. USA.
Adelaide Assembly (Maysie Almond) to Sydney and Auckland Local Assemblies, 2 September 1932. 0252/0062.
Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to National Assembly, British Isles, 3 September 1932. 0252/0062.
Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to the National Assembly, United States and Canada, 3 September 1932. 0202/0060.
Shoghi Effendi to Adelaide Assembly, 27 December 1932. 0252/0062.
Shoghi Effendi to Adelaide Assembly, 29 May 1933. USA - NSA records. Foreign LSAs. Australia. Adelaide.
Adelaide assembly to Sydney and Auckland assembly NSA committees, 19 May 1933. 0252/0062.
Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Sydney and Auckland Assembly NSA Committees, 26 September 1933. 0252/0062. In her 1944 Secretary's Report, Hilda wrote "To consult by correspondence about even one little matter means that the secretary must communicate all the information concerning it to the other eight members...Sometimes a national member is obliged to ask the secretary for further explanation and information before he or she can give a considered opinion and vote on a proposition, this entails more correspondence...to consult about only one matter, much writing is necessary. It frequently happens that after the secretary has just posted letters to the members, communications are received making it necessary to write to them all again immediately. Bahá'í Quarterly, 32, July 44,9
Sydney Assembly to Adelaide Assembly, 4 June 1933. Hilda replied that, although the Sydney Bahá'ís had set a "splendid example", the Adelaide friends found that they were unable to match it. 9 July 1933. 0068/0017.
Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Shoghi Effendi, 24 April, 1933. 0252/0062. In reply, the Guardian stated his whole-hearted approval of the "membership application form for affiliation with Bahá'ís of Australia and New Zealand". Shoghi Effendi to Adelaide Assembly, 29 May 1933. op. cit.
See Peter Smith, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions, George Ronald, 1987, esp. p.144 "Universalism and Liberalism".
Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Auckland Assembly, 1 February 1934. 0252/0062.
Jim Heggie, Interview, 7 February 1981. The first convention was reported in Hilda Brooks' article "Convention of Australia and New Zealand", Herald of the South, 6:2, 19 July 1934, 7-11. Other members of the first National Spiritual Assembly were Hyde Dunn, Ostwald Whitaker, and Charlotte Moffitt from Sydney; and Ethel Blundell and Margaret Stevenson from Auckland.
National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Shoghi Effendi, 8 July 1935. Shoghi Effendi. Box 3. NSA 1934-1957.
In 1936 funds were absorbed by the sickness and hospitalization of Hyde Dunn; in 1939 convention was cancelled so that all effort could go into preparation of Martha Root's lecture tour; it was impossible to arrange transport during some years of the Second World War.
Bahá'í Quarterly, 3, April 1937, 6.
Hilda Brooks to Martha Root, 17 April 1939. USA. Martha Root Papers M114. Box 4/44.
National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Shoghi Effendi, 14 May 1938. Shoghi Effendi Box 3. NSA 1934-57.
National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Sydney Assembly, 17 July 1942. NSA 1934-48.
National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Sydney Assembly (Gladys Moody), 2 April 1943. NSA 1934-48.
Shoghi Effendi, Box 3. NSA 1934-57.
Shoghi Effendi to National Assembly, 13 May, 1945, Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, 1923-1957, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Australia, 1970, 56.
Bahá'í Quarterly, 29, October 1943, 1.
Herald of the South, 7:4, January-March 1936.
A talk given twice in 1944: first, in Adelaide, at a meeting to celebrate the centenary of the declaration of the Bab, 1844-1944, in May, then in June at the Savoy Theatre, Sydney, at the invitation of the Theosophical Society.
World Religion Day, Adelaide, 1951.
Hilda Brooks and Ostwald Whitaker gave "well attended" lectures, and Stanley W. Bolton and Ethel Blundell also spoke: National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Shoghi Effendi, 14 May 1938. Shoghi Effendi. Box 3. NSA 1934-1957.
Hilda Brooks to Martha Root, 30 March 1939. USA. Martha Root Papers. M114 Box 4/44.
Bahá'í Quarterly, 20, July 1941, 4.
Hilda Brooks to Shoghi Effendi, 8 November 1941, SE3.
"Undoubtedly", Hilda wrote to Bertam Dewing in Auckland, "This method assures unity on the part of the assembly, while it also conforms to the explicit instructions for such matters given on p24 of the Book of Administration", 9 November 1932. 0252/0062.
ie, an individual who had been expelled from the Faith.
An American Bahá'í, Willard Hatch, notified the Adelaide of the first transgression, in 1932. The second, Florence Pinchon's article on spiritualism, "Above the Mists", was printed in Herald of the South in 1938.
Bahá'í Newsletter of NSA of India and Burma, letter 2, October 1935 (USA)
Adelaide Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Auckland Assembly, 26 December 1932. 0252/0062.
National Assembly (Hilda Brooks) to Sydney Assembly, 28 June 1940. NSA 1934-48.
Bahá'í Quarterly, 28, July 1943, 3.
Bahá'í Quarterly, 3, April 1937, 6.
Bahá'í Quarterly, 29 Oct 43, 3.
Bahá'í Quarterly, April 1943, 2.
This and the following passages are taken from Record of 1946 Convention. 0009/0003.
Shoghi Effendi to National Assembly, 22 July 1947, Letters From the Guardian, p69.
Shoghi Effendi to Adelaide Assembly, 28 December 1949. Shoghi Effendi Box 4.
Bahá'í Quarterly, 32, July 44,4
Bahá'í Quarterly, 34, January 1945,4
Bahá'í Quarterly, 40, July 1946,9